Original title: Ett steg framåt, men lika långt kvar till mål. Några kommentarer till Xavier Girrards text

One step forward, but just as far from the goal. Regarding the text by Xavier Girrard

Peter Åström

Necessity and communism

In his text on Troploin’s and Théorie communiste’s respective conceptions of history, Xavier Girrard (XG) makes a convincing argument for “the inadequacies of both positions”.1) Opening with a quote by Gilles Dauvé he assumes the task of going beyond the dilemma between a “self-conscious ahistoricism” (attributed Troploin) and an “unself-conscious historicism” (attributed TC), and it is not the logic that falters when this is to be proved. XG presupposes that there lies something true in both Dauvé’s and TC’s criticisms of each other’s perspective and in his text he develops a new synthesis intended to exceed them both in a “self-conscious historicism”. One has to agree in that our theory needs to be exactly as XG describes here below:

[B]ecause it is only in the material struggle to produce communism that one can comprehend whether the communism of the present is indeed the definitive overcoming of the dialectic, a self-consciously historicist communist theory can simultaneously assert the necessity of the present movement’s authoritativeness while recognizing the possibility of its failure.2)

However, there is one big problem and that is the very point of departure, for if it is impossible to balance two symmetrically opposed errors, as Dauvé himself notes, it will certainly be less possible to successfully overcome a problematic which doesn’t even exist. This is the mistake to which XG has fallen victim.

Regarding the critique aimed at Troploin and their ahistoricism, one has to agree fully and we have nothing more to add to it. Concerning TC, the critique would probably have been right had it only been an accurate depiction of their positions. However, and despite his sympathetic attitude, XG reconstructs an inaccurate account of TC’s positions, and it is then this distorted picture of TC which he tries to go beyond. Two examples:

TC abstracts the theory of their moment as the absolute theory. TC produces a total history where the necessary production of communism, as determined by the current cycle of struggle, is neatly situated as its end.3)
TC only reconstructs history to prove that communism will be necessarily produced in the present historical moment.4)

But where does TC say that the present moment, the existing contradiction between proletariat and capital by necessity has to result in a victorious communist revolution? Nowhere. Still, XG is not the first to have interpreted TC’s theory in this way. A member of TC, in our interview published in the previous issue of riff-raff, has already responded to this critique with these words:

[T]here is also a big misunderstanding about the way we present the possibility of communisation: when we say “now the revolution presents itself in this way” we are certainly not saying “finally it presents itself in the way it always should have”, nor are we saying that capital has resolved the problems of the proletarians in their place, because in order to imagine that it would be necessary for those problems to have pre-existed the restructuring and determined the previous period. But e.g. the problem of the impossibility of programmatism posed by the last restructuring was not a problem during the period of programmatism itself, where it was the very course of the revolution, and if capital has resolved the problem of programmatism it should not be forgotten that this happened in a restructuring, that is to say in a counter-revolution, the resolution was produced against the proletarians, and not as a gift from capital. And today the problematic of revolution as communisation raises problems just as redoubtable as those of programmatism, because when it is action as a class which becomes the very limit of class struggle, and you can only make the revolution in and through that action, you have some god-awful problems.5)

The profound scepticism that many people have for TC is founded on a reading which sees a messianic preaching that the moment of true communism has finally arrived, when they see that TC writes that the revolution as communisation (which is not to be mistaken for the communist revolution in general) is something new which has only become a question as from the current cycle of struggles. For those comrades who are still stuck in the problematic of the ultra-left one of the largest obstacles to the revolution is constantly the integration of the working class with capital through the unions which, according to them, are preventing the class from achieving its autonomy. These still often see social democracy and Leninism as dangerous impasses which the proletariat must make sure to avoid, and so when TC and others are saying that the affirmation of labour is no longer a problem this sounds too good to be true. What they forget then is only that at the same time as the counter-revolutionary force inherent to the self-affirmation of the proletariat has fortunately been swept away by the restructuring, also the revolutionary power basing itself on the class identity of the worker has also gone up in smoke, that which had made possible the revolutionary workers’ autonomy.6) So we won’t have to see any future workers’ states that imprisons workers but at the same time we are deprived of the broad workers’ solidarity and organisation, the proletarian class unity which previously constituted a solid base for the struggle against capital. Revolution and counter-revolution in our time will simply appear different and neither of them is going to have the worker’s identity as its life-bringing source. In other words we have witnessed a shift in cycles of struggles and so today we are situated in a completely new arena where the rules of the game have been rewritten. Now if this new situation is going to be more successful, from a communist perspective, than was the 150 years of programmatism, that is something which remains to be seen. At least the future is open, as opposed to what has already been added to the historical archives. The class contradiction of today has no magical configuration which automatically leads to the abolishing of capital. Had that been the case then the whole matter should have already been out of the way.

True, TC maintains that the proletarians now tend to confront their class belonging directly in the majority of today’s struggles. This is indeed a very interesting phenomenon in which we can see how every-day struggles portend the dissolution of the classes. It wasn’t like this before, but when did anybody say that this must imply a certain victory in the class war? Never is anything certain but it is only in the contradiction between capital and the proletariat, the way this contradiction stands today, that we can put our hopes.

Progress for the capital relation? Progress for class struggle?

For XG, the “capitalist mode of production is presently far more advanced than previously”7). Undoubtedly, this is an uncontroversial statement, but a statement which can certainly be called into question, for according to which yardstick is this progress to be measured? If examine the amount of commodities produced as well as the total amount of value, then there has in both cases been a tremendous expansion throughout the history of capitalism. That subsumption has deepened and that “more phenomena have become exchangeable” is undoubtedly true, and looking at the amount of value [värdestorleken] must mean looking at capital according to its own yardstick: the more and larger values the greater the capitalist advance, right? If we consider the following quote by Marx we seem to find such a thought:

Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.8)

If we on the other hand watch capital more closely and see it as the impersonal process it actually is, then we arrive at the basic formula M–C–M´. We recollect that capital and the capital relation can only continue to exist if this process is pursued continuously, i.e. money finding its way to becoming more money. In reality, it is this simple principle which is the essence of capital. To this end it is subjugating the world and models it in its own image. And that the world is changing rapidly and is adopted to facilitate capital reproduction, this is for the undead labour just as much a side-effect as it for the businessman is all the same what sort of things his industry is actually producing.

A specific pole of capital takes a step forward once it has managed to go through its cycle and bring forth M´, but with this it is inexorably brought back to the beginning of the formula, to M. If one million dollars had been invested and after a turn through the production process returned as the same one million, then no progress will have been made; no additional value was produced and the money sum has thus ceased to be capital, for the law of valorisation insists that value grows bigger. However, if one million were to become two and you have a doubling of the wealth, this wouldn’t for capital be less of a progress than if tree, five or even one hundred millions could be realised. For the capitalist it would certainly be a delight being able to collect a hundred millions; he would be able to live a comfortable life in luxury. But capital itself can never rest. A twice as full warehouse is twice as difficult to get rid of. Social total capital stands constantly with the knife against the throat and it doesn’t survive one moment without deepening the exploitation of its opposite the proletariat, irrespective of the amount of surplus-value it had managed to produce the day before.

Regarding present day capitalism XG writes that “surplus-value is extracted far more fluidly, and localized poles of antagonistic accumulation have given way to a more globalized capital.”9) It is true that capital, by way of its globalisation, managed to secure profits for a few decades more after it had broken free from the regulated national zones of accumulation, but it is doubtful if today’s restructured capital relation, with its incessant financial crises and chronic unemployment, would be more vigorous in comparison with that dominating the West during the golden years after the Second World War. When neo-liberalism shouted out from the housetops the urgent need to make the labour market more flexible and loosening the chains that held back the free flows of financial capital, then this was something true, but it was only at this moment when all the regulations or rigidities had become a problem for the system itself. Of course, according to certain fanatical bourgeois ideologues these had always been the problem, in fact the only problem, and this dogma is more than two hundred years old. Market fundamentalism replaced Keynesianism, not because it represented a more advanced expression of the power of the capitalists but because it corresponded better to a new historical situation.

So according to XG, capital has become more advanced than previously, but he also says that this has been accompanied by a more advanced and pugnacious proletariat: “forms of struggle are far more advanced than previously…”10) Here too we need to ask ourselves: according to what yardstick?

If we look just at the general life and working conditions the struggle of the workers doesn’t seem to have led to any improvements worth mentioning ever since globalisation was initiated, at least not in the advanced capitalist countries where we’ve rather seen the opposite trend. From this perspective programmatism actually seemed more advanced: the workers’ movement marched forward and attained an ever greater degree of organisation. More and more votes were won in the parliamentary elections. No-one could turn a blind eye on its growing strength. And with the improvements that it managed to force through the vision of an eventual liberation from the yoke of capital could also be maintained. Today this vision is dead and buried. Nobody can see any such trend in the current development of society. The productivity gains are now accompanied by stagnating wages, increased pressure and rising unemployment.11)

But XG seems to be looking for some sort of qualitative aspect in the struggle because he adds the following:

[W]orkers struggle against the union and the party as aspects of capital, wildcat strikes abound, the council has lost its role as a panacea, and workers’ identity is increasingly ignored or directly assaulted by workers themselves.12)

This cannot be interpreted as if XG would say that the trade-union, the party, the workers’ council etc. at all times is something “bad”. We know from his text that he objects to such a normative view. On the contrary, XG accepts for example the workers’ council as an adequate form of the revolution during a specific cycle of struggles. Despite this we see a certain ultra-left jargon shining through: the old mediations (but he is actually not using this word) are “directly assaulted by workers themselves”, something which is seen as something positive or more “advanced”.

It is true that shell of the trade-union movement which grew up during the previous period along with the workers’ parties today often need to be attacked by the workers. These organisations have, in a country like Sweden, as its major goal to guarantee future investments and thus jobs in the country. No longer are they advancing the positions of the workers as it used to be called. Workers’ politics has been replaced by the need to administer the crisis (i.e. the latent crisis since the beginning of the restructuring) and to spread out its negative effects according to a principle of “solidarity,” by offering a less terrible solution than what is usually recommended by the liberal-conservative parties. This means an inverted reformism with a slow but steady dismantling of labour legislation and welfare institutions built up during the previous period.

But the restructured capitalism and the attacks by the capitalist class over the last thirty years are in no way better for the mode of production than what the Fordist regime once was. It simply became necessary that the latter was to be dismatled as soon as it had become incompatible with the reproduction of the system. Likewise, the counter-attacks by the workers are not more advanced today. If, at present, in order to defend your conditions of living, it often becomes necessary to go out on an unofficial strike or, as we have seen in France, that very radical measures are being taken, such as taking the boss prisoner and threats of massive sabotage of the means of production, then these methods are only necessary in the light of an increased international competition and they are being taken in pure desperation. But the bitter truth is that the number of strikes has gone down steadily according to statistics, including the unofficial ones.

A confrontation with the unions today have however nothing to do with the ultra-left’s critique of the mediations, or that one against the reformism within the workers’ movement has to put forward the self-organisation of the working class. That world has ceased to exist; today’s situation looks radically different. There is no longer any workers’ movement since there is no more workers’ identity and thus no more reformism or revolutionary workers’ autonomy. A struggle coming from the grass roots can emerge spontaneously outside or against the wishes of the local union, but it may also occur that it is the union which takes the initiative. As long as the struggle is over wages and conditions these formalities do not matter very much, for it is not the trade union which needs to be overcome but the trade-unionist content of the struggle, something which necessitates a qualitative leap.

To conclude, although certain “progressive” ideas have here been questioned, there is no point in trying to deny that the capitalist mode of production is in fact developing in time, which would be absurd. The mode of production does indeed have a history where the successive cycles of struggle are not simply breaking with the previous configuration – sometimes with a whole set of institutions – but where the new configuration also bears the marks of what it is replacing. In the process where a new cycle of struggles is on the way to replace the one immediately preceding, sweeping transformations break down the previous supporting structure, but simultaneously a new playing field is opened up with its own particular structure. Thus, history moves forward, the relation of contradiction develops, i.e. the conditions for the exploitation of labour power and the struggle against exploitation. Of what we’ve seen so far the mode of production has pulled through and avoided blowing up from the inside. But this fact proves neither that it is going to survive also in the future nor that it is now, finally, facing being abolished. If the latter is after all to become reality there will be needed that the classes proletariat and capital, at a certain moment, are to confront one-another in a such a way that the outcome will be another than the continued reproduction of the mode of production and the classes: communism.

April 2010
1) Xavier Girrard, “Communization and history. Some thoughts on the debate”.
2) , 7) , 10) , 12) Op. cit.
3) , 4) Op. cit., XX.
5) riff-raff / Roland Simon, “Interview with Roland Simon” <http://www.riff-raff.se/en/8/interview_roland.php>
6) Cf. Théorie communiste, Self-organisation is the first act of the revolution; it then becomes an obstacle which the revolution has to overcome, Supplement to Théorie communiste no 20, 2006.
8) Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1, p. !!XX!!.
9) Xavier Girrard, op. cit.
11) Capital’s apologetes are seeking to prove that the free flows of capital are making the world a better place in showing numbers of an increased average length of life and reduced child mortality. Excellent! Let’s forget about our robbed youth and instead look forward to a prolonged old age with postponed retirement.